Scores of cabdrivers skipped work during business hours yesterday and spent the day circulating through the District, demonstrating for higher fares and lower fines.
There were no official estimates on how many drivers took part, but organizers said at least 200 and as many as 400 cabs were off the street between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.
The result was a mad scramble for cabs in several areas in the District, including most downtown hotels. At Union Station shortly after 8:30 a.m., the busiest time, the line of would-be passengers stretched from the center doors to the west end of the building, one dispatcher said.
The protest proved a boon for limousine drivers, who were hailed by hotel doormen and other dispatchers. At least one driver was charging $10 to go from Union Station to 16th and K streets NW, almost three times the normal rate. Cabdrivers from Virginia and Maryland, who use meters, took up the slack at National Airport.
The Concerned D.C. Cab Drivers Association, which organized the protest, held a rally at the District Building at 11 a.m., then took its message to the Taxicab Commission in Southeast.
"Somebody is under the ridiculous assumption that cabdrivers make a lot of money, when in fact we don't," the group's chairman, Eli Williams, said in front of the District Building.
Cabdrivers have long complained about the city's zone system and fares they consider low. The rapid rise in gas prices and an increase in the cost of insurance and car repairs have produced a situation where, as one driver said, they are "working to get poor."
What particularly has angered many drivers is a new fine schedule that substantially increased penalties for violations. As of June 1, for example, the fine for driving without insurance rose from $5 to $500, and for failing to pick up a passenger from $25 to $250.
That, the drivers said, has made them a profitable target for hack inspectors. Statistics provided by the commission, which says it has beefed up enforcement to improve service, show a dramatic rise in the number of vehicles inspected and the fines levied.
Last month, inspectors issued 1,435 tickets and inspected 12,189 vehicles. The figures for August 1989 are 289 fines issued and 1,148 vehicles inspected.
"They think we are an easy target for them to come up with extra revenue," said the association's vice chairman, Paul Bath.
When they are not the targets of inspectors, the drivers said, they are preyed upon by criminals. Two drivers have been killed during the past few months, and robberies are a constant problem. Of the more than 8,000 licensed cabdrivers in the District, about 70 percent are foreigners, and organizers said the system discriminates against those who have trouble communicating.
"The hack inspectors do not respect us. They speak down to us," said Jaime Banol, a Colombian who has been in the District for 18 years.
There have been other protests recently, including one in July, but for the first time yesterday the drivers drew the attention of the commission, which called a news conference to address the matter.
Chairwoman Carrolena Key, whose removal is one of the group's demands, said the commission is examining the zone system and "reasonable fare increases."
"We sympathize with those drivers and their families who are without health and life insurance benefits and other occupational realities faced by workers in an industry which are beyond the commission's authority," she said.
Key, who read from a prepared text, did not answer any questions. But Commissioner William Wright, whose removal also is sought, indicated there is some movement toward improving conditions for the drivers.
Wright said the commission is considering a 75 cent surcharge for gasoline and for a cost-of-living increase. He also said he has suggested levying some fines in stages.
Meters, which most drivers favor and the commission has been considering, will be tested starting next week, Wright said.